The Belfast rape trial verdict only reinforces what we already know
After a trial lasting almost nine weeks, the verdict is in for one of the most high profile court cases in the history of Northern Ireland. The four men, two of them famous for their careers in Irish rugby, have been officially cleared on all counts of perverting the course of justice, indecent exposure, harassment, abuse, and rape. he outcome is exactly what I expected, but I didn't anticipate the waves of dejection and fury I have been experiencing since reading the news.
On Wednesday 28th of March it took less than four hours for a jury of nine men and three women to arrive at the conclusion that there was no way for them to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the men on trial had committed any of the crimes of which they were accused. I understand this; I can accept that when the question of consent is raised in a courtroom it is incredibly difficult to prove one person’s word over another. What I cannot accept is that by proclaiming these men not guilty, the jury is handing down another, unspoken verdict: that the woman in question is not a victim, but a liar. By definition, their innocence has ensured her guilt.
The ‘Belfast Rugby Rape Trial’ is a high profile example of an all-too-common theme; I'm not surprised by the verdict because I have seen similar results unfold so many times before. In the 12 months up to August 2017, the number of recorded crimes of rape in Northern Ireland was 884. The number of instances in which the recorded crime reached an outcome of charge, summons, caution, or penalty notice was a mere 7.9%. The devastating reality is that the moment anyone who claims to be a victim of rape or sexual assault steps inside a courtroom the odds are immediately stacked against them, and the vast majority of these victims are women. The legal system in the UK and Ireland has long been seen to treat women like second class citizens and this failure is perhaps nowhere most pervasive than in the nature of legal proceedings during rape trials.
In this case, after giving evidence to the prosecution and describing to the jury her account of what happened that night, the victim was then subjected to four separate cross examinations. During this time the defence were given free reign to build their case upon the assassination of the woman’s character, persistently driving home the idea that this was just a “silly little girl” who had gotten lost in her own web of lies.
The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland lists certain myths surrounding the offence of rape, including: victims promote rape by the way they act or dress; victims who drink alcohol or use drugs are asking to be raped; if they did not scream, fight, or get injured, it was not rape; victims cry rape when they regret having sex or want revenge. The PPSNI states that it will not allow these myths and stereotypes to influence decisions, and that it will robustly challenge such attitudes in the courtroom. However, by the end of an eight day cross examination, every single one of these myths and stereotypes were presented to the jury as evidence that the woman was a liar. The tan stains on her clothes from that night were shown as proof that she was going out with the intent of having consensual sex. Any lapse in memory or confusion on her part were held against her as inconsistencies in her story. The idea that she could have been “frozen in fear” during the rape was ardently rejected, and the defence ultimately declared that the complainant had only made rape accusations out of concern it would be discovered that she had engaged in consensual group sex.
In the end, the jury found it easier to believe that a woman would undergo massive public humiliation and degradation to avoid being caught doing something perfectly legal, than to accept the idea that well-respected men are capable of rape.
These men have now been declared not guilty and not one of them is under obligation to attend any kind of sexuality education course or consent training. It was made abundantly clear during the trial that the accused had zero respect for the women they met that night, but the repulsive language they used in their messages to one another when discussing it has been casually dismissed as harmless locker room talk - the favourite defence of awful men everywhere. They have publicly expressed remorse for their boorish behaviour, and I am sure they will be back to playing professional rugby within the year. Boys will continue to be boys, meanwhile women will continue to be failed by a legal system which is supposed to protect them.
The reason the verdict in this case resonates so deeply with me and I am sure many others is that regardless of what you believe to be the truth in the matter, a greater truth has been driven home like a punch to the gut. Rape and sexual assault crimes against women are still not taken seriously enough in the eyes of the law. Surely there cannot be justice if legal procedure protects the rights of the accused whilst so readily permitting re-traumatisation of the victim at the same time?
As a Northern Irish woman I am angry, many of us are. If nothing else I hope that the outcome of this trial will mobilise women in Northern Ireland to make their outrage heard and to petition for change. If we are going to continue encouraging victims of rape and sexual assault to go to the authorities then we must ensure there are systems of protection and support in place for them once they do. Like a very brave young women recently said, “Rape is a game of power and control. They rely on your silence. The only way you can take the power back is when you actually do something about it,” but that responsibility of shifting the power dynamic should not rest with the victim - it is time for our criminal justice system to do something about it.